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Stones in His Pockets

by on 18 November 2021

Check the Gate

Stones in His Pockets

by Marie Jones

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Theatre until 20th November

Review by Andrew Lawston

Hollywood has come to Hampton Hill Theatre courtesy of Teddington Theatre Club, as two extras muddle through the filming of a costume drama in County Kerry, Ireland.  Over the course of two hugely enjoyable acts, Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones deflates every romantic notion you may ever have had about film-making, painfully plausibly.

Given that the setting is a film with a cast of hundreds, it’s appropriate that this play has a cast of two, playing dozens.  Brendan Leddy plays Charlie, a video shop manager driven out of business by a corporate competitor, who has packed a tent and left his home to “do Ireland”, washing up on the film set apparently by chance.  Ian Kinane plays Jake, a local man with a restless soul.

Both Jake and Charlie are played to perfection, two laddish men in their 30s who drink and exchange banter and ogle the actresses.  When we first meet them, Charlie is trying to wangle an extra portion of lemon meringue pie from the catering truck, and this seems to be his main goal in life.  They both begin the play apparently carefree, but it becomes evident that both are deeply dissatisfied with their aimless lives.

But while Jake and Charlie are both a pleasure to watch, Ian and Brendan also play a dozen other characters, switching effortlessly into fresh personas with a little twirl, and an instant shift in stance and voice.  Some of these characters are more subtle than others – the film’s assistant directors Simon (Brendan) and Aisling (Ian) transform before our eyes through poise and sharper accents, while older characters such as Wee Mickey Riordain (Ian) and Brother Gerrard and Mr Harkin (Brendan) rely on a hand on an imagined bad hip and occasional facial tics that recall Popeye the Sailor.  Mickey especially is frequently a comic character, however, with his claim to fame as the last surviving extra from John Wayne’s The Quiet Man, and if the characterisation isn’t subtle, it is consistent and effective.  Only once does the barrage of characters become slightly confusing.  At one point towards the very end of the first act, Brendan becomes “Finn”.  Perhaps there wasn’t quite enough distance between Finn and Charlie, or perhaps we just missed something in an earlier scene, because we did spend the interval trying to remember who Finn was.

In addition to playing all the characters, Ian and Brendan are called on to mime almost all of the props, from pints of beer to the script tucked inside Charlie’s shirt, which they perform with impressive conviction.

As a result of the minimalist staging, the transitions between characters and between scenes are instantaneous and the pace is blistering.  Wesley Henderson Roe’s direction never lets the energy drop once, Ian and Brendan only pause for the laughs, which come frequently.  Wesley Henderson Roe is also credited with the stage design, where Hampton Hill Theatre’s stage is decorated with furniture, costume racks, spotlights, and other paraphernalia that we’re invited to assume is part of the film set.  The spotlights also double as part of Mike Elgey’s lighting, and the lights snap up and down in perfect coordination with the scene changes and character transformations.  Charles J Halford provides sound that is sometimes part of the play (music in the pub, the splosh of stones being thrown into a river), and sometimes part of the film’s soundtrack.  The overall effect is highly immersive, particularly when the assistant directors are occasionally treating the audience as extras, berating or praising individuals for their costumes.

Stones in his Pockets initially seems to be purely puncturing the myth of Hollywood glamour, through the extras who mostly just care about their “forty quid a day” and the assistant directors instructing crowd scenes to watch their bobbing hand as an eye-line because the lead actors will not be appearing in a particular shot.  Caroline Giovanni seems to be able to procure a young man for a liaison, in a fashion that seems doubly sinister in the post-Weinstein era, with the entire crew apparently complicit and pressuring Jake to enter her trailer.  Charlie carries his film script in his shirt, confident that if he can get a star to read it, he will be a made man.

Hollywood’s stereotyped view of Ireland is addressed repeatedly, with an actress trying to perfect a rural County Kerry accent for her role and angrily rejecting the suggestion that such a character would actually have a much more refined accent in any case.  Charlie and Jake laugh at the prospect of fiddle music being played over their scenes.

But as the first act progresses, the play begins to explore the impact that the Hollywood production is having on the small farming community.  Jake’s cousin Sean is an apparently belligerent drug addict, thrown out of the pub in his own town.  This leads to a tragedy that shapes the whole second act.  Both Jake and Sean are played by Ian, and this is hugely effective as Jake wrestles with guilt over Sean’s fate.

The unwitting catalyst for most of the play’s drama is provided by Caroline Giovanni, the Hollywood actress who knows her Seamus Heaney poetry but can’t quite master the accent.  It may be a coincidence that Stones in his Pockets premiered in 1996, the same year as Julia Roberts was nominated for the Worst Actress Razzie award for her turn in Mary Reilly, but when Giovanni begins to take an interest in Jake, it’s impossible not to equate the character with Roberts, given the resemblance to her later film Notting Hill.  It’s a credit to Brendan, who plays Giovanni, that he largely resists the impulse to play up to this inescapable association.

The play’s second act is generally a more sombre affair, and the producers’ lack of empathy for the local community becomes truly sinister.  But there is no easy black and white distinction to be drawn.  The film’s director initially forbids the extras from attending a funeral, provoking outrage, but not only do the producers later relent and suspend shooting for a couple of hours, but Giovanni donates all the flowers from a wedding scene to the church.  The gesture is ambiguous and crass, especially when she insists on sitting on the front pew of a funeral for a man she never met, but it appears to be sincere.

We are even gradually invited to empathise with the assistant directors Simon and especially Aisling, who are initially depicted as faintly ridiculous figures of petty authority.  As the director Clem is introduced, mispronouncing Aisling’s name (“Arseline”) and being generally awful, they are revealed to be as vulnerable and lost in their own way as Charlie and Jake, dealing with dreadful working conditions and impossible demands.

Instead of picking an easy villain, Stones in his Pockets tells a wider story of dwindling prospects for young men.  Charlie’s video shop has been put out of business by a multinational corporation and the young men of County Kerry, exemplified by Sean, are increasingly desperate due to farmers selling their land in order to survive.  When Mickey, the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man, is ejected from the set for drunkenness, his parting shot is the bitter irony of being thrown off land that he used to own.  The only hope for many of the people of this corner of County Kerry seems to be to “wait for the next film”.  From The Quiet Man, to a previous film which we’re told in flashback paid extras just “thirty quid a day” to this latest production.

This production has been refreshed for Teddington Theatre Club from an earlier 2018 production in the theatre’s studio space.  The previous production was performed in the round, and although this new version of Stones in his Pockets provides an incredibly enjoyable evening’s theatre, I sometimes felt that a 360 degree staging might be even more effective, particularly when the actors interact with the audience.  There is a slight awkwardness to pretending that the audience are additional extras, which might not have been present in the original staging.  However, the transition from in the round to a proscenium arch production is otherwise seamless, and this is a top-notch production of a splendid play.

Andrew Lawston, November 2021

Photography by Sarah J Carter

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